Friday 15 April 2016

The Agency, by Y S Lee

Greetings from North America! This month my American publisher, Candlewick Press, is reissuing the Agency quartet with new, extra-mysterious covers. These are closely based on the UK covers designed by Walker Books, to be sure, but aren't they glorious all the same?

A Spy in the House (The Agency 1)

The Body at the Tower (The Agency 2)
The Traitor in the Tunnel (The Agency 3)
Rivals in the City (The Agency 4)
To celebrate this reissue, I'm sharing share some of the ideas and moments that underpin the Agency and its world. I came to fiction-writing while completing a PhD in Victorian literature and culture, so perhaps it's not surprising that my first reference points are scholarly.

Four inspirations for the Agency:

1. An article (Laura Tabili’s "Women of a Very Low Type") about mixed-race families in late-Victorian Liverpool. The women were typically Irish-born, the men Lascars – that is, Asian sailors.

2. The Great Stink of 1858, when modern urban-industrial pollution met an intense heat wave. The stench of the River Thames was so intense that Benjamin Disraeli fled the House of Commons with a handkerchief clapped across his nose.

3. London itself. I fell in love with it while living in Bloomsbury and researching my doctoral thesis at the British Library. I was desperate to write something that reflected how I felt about the city.

4. An endnote in Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White, which claims that St. John's Wood was just the type of area in which a Victorian man would stash his mistress. It made me wonder what other kinds of women might live in St. John's Wood. Spies, obviously!

And here are four Victorian novels that changed the way I thought about the period, making it possible to imagine writing fiction in what is so often, for academics, a revered space:

1. William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair. Brown-skinned characters everywhere, if you just keep your eyes open. They’re marginal figures and Thackeray didn’t seem to know what to do with them, but at least his panorama includes them. Brown people! In high society, even.

2. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh. Aurora appears to live on her own, in Kensington, and entertains a bachelor visitor without comprising her reputation! What is going on, here?

3. Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone. One of the first detective novels ever. A funny detective novel, at that, with a mixed-race physician and a surprisingly racy scene between Rachel and Franklin.

4. Charles Dickens, Bleak House. Secret love affair, illegitimate child, suicide by shame and opium, and the crushing weight of British law. And who else could get away, in a supposedly realist novel, with attributing a character’s death to “spontaneous combustion”?

The new editions go on sale on April 26 - huzzah! I am so thrilled that a new generation of readers will get to know the Agency.


Y S Lee is the author of the award-winning Agency mysteries (Walker Books/Candlewick Press). Read more at or say hello on Twitter.


Joan Lennon said...

Great covers - and great starting points!

Y S Lee said...

Thank you very much, Joan!

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I hope hundreds more teens read them - they are such great brilliant, exciting novels.

Y S Lee said...

Thank you so much, ML!